by Syed Ali Abbas Zaidi

The entire world has been gripped by news of ISIS – Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (also known as Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham; now just Islamic State) – declaring on 29th June 2014 what Islamist movements have always dreamt of: a Caliphate.

The concept of the Caliphate is sold in Jihadist narratives as the ultimate goal of their political (violent & non-violent) struggle. It is considered by them as the ultimate antidote to the venom of secular and liberal democracy, and thus a panacea for all social, political and religious ills that Muslim communities are currently undergoing.

ISIS have declared themselves the winners of the global race towards a Caliphate, and as such its gains and losses will shape the future face of Jihadism in Pakistan and across the world.

Their destruction of Sufi shrines, mass murders of Christians and Shias and threats to desecrate shrines in Karbala, Baghdad and even establishments in the Kaaba, reflect the ideological basis on which their movement is based.

Transnational alliances of Islamist movements form the backbone of their material and ideological support systems, a subject not given due mileage in local counter-extremism and counter-terrorism work. Thus this article attempts to explore the links between ISIS and various Jihadist movements within Pakistan.

ISIS sprang from what is known as Jama’at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad (JTJ) and later Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), both of which were founded by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Zarqawi’s Islamic State of Iraq – also known as al-Qaeda in Iraq – is the genesis of what is today known as the ISIS.

Zarqawi is said to have traveled to Pakistan at the age of 23 to participate in the Afghan Jihad (Ahmed, 2011). He started living in Hayatabad, Peshawar and networked with leadership members of the newly formed al-Qaeda. It is important to note that Hayatabad, Peshawar became a center for al-Qaeda leadership and many of its terrorists have been arrested from there. Zarqawi’s sisters were also settled in Peshawar and his mother visited him frequently there.

It was in Peshawar that Zarqawi adopted the fundamentalist Salafist faith, which experts say fuelled his animosity toward Shia Muslims and moderate Muslim governments.

Zarqawi established a terrorist camp on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border to train fighters and is responsible for multiple terrorist attacks on government targets and against Shias.
He was hosted by the banned Pakistani terrorist outfit Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) for several years and trained their recruits from South Punjab in his camp.

He is also rumored to be arrested by the Pakistani intelligence ISI, but was later released. He traveled to Karachi regularly, and before saying goodbye to Pakistan in 1999 he is thought to have influenced local Jihadi organizations like Laskhar-e-Taiba and Laskhar-e-Jhangvi, and maintained Jihadist ties with them. (Mir, 2008)

Zarqawi developed differences with Al-Qaeda’s spiritual mentor Al-Zahwahiri, chief Osama Bin Laden and ideologue Maqdisi for his brutal, ad-hoc and indiscriminate killing of Shias in Iraq.
Much of what is happening in the Arab world can be credited to the conscious decision of Zarqawi to adapt a violent anti-Shia stance in his global Jihadist world-view. The sectarian civil strife the Middle East is currently witnessing is exactly what the anti-Zarqawi leadership of Al-Qaeda predicted. He inspired and executed several attacks on Iraqi Shias and till date inspires local Pakistani organizations like Laskhar-e-Jhangvi for their public massacres of Shias.

On 10th June 2006, Jamat’ud Dawa held funeral prayers in absentia of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, after his death in an airstrike on 7th June 2006.
As certain Urdu columnists observed the ‘martyrdom’ of their fallen hero Zarqawi, many Pakistanis who stood at his funeral prayers in absentia did not know of the violence perpetuated by this man and his fierce anti-Shia views (although posted and published few days before his death on mainstream media and internet forums in June 2006) in which he claimed that, “There would be no total victory over the Jews and Christians without a total annihilation of the Shia” and that, “If you can’t find any Jews or Christians to kill, vent your wrath against the next available Shia” (Ahmed, 2011).

Current leader of ISIS
The current leader of IS (ISIS) and self-proclaimed Caliph of Muslims, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, fought and studied under Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. ISIS’s fighters have been spotted raising pictures of Zarqawi even 8 years after his death, clear proof of his continuing influence on the organization’s ideology.

Amid rumors, it is now established that ‘Mujahideen’ of Pakistani origin are also fighting inSyria and Iraq. Tehrik e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) has openly boasted about sending ‘hundreds of men’ and having established Jihadi camps in Syria.

The social media feeds of Sipah e Sahaba and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi reveal their level of interest in recent developments in the Middle East. While sectarian wars are on the rise everywhere, the recent upsurge in attacks on Shias in Pakistan can be directly linked with the rise of ISIS.

Zarqawi is dead but ‘Zarqawism’ is now deeply rooted in violent Islamist movements and his ruthless advocacy to kill the ‘near enemy’ (Shias, Sufis, Jews, Christians and others) first will not vanish anytime soon.

It is now up to Muslim societies and states to ensure that this crisis does not escalate further into what could be a full-blown, global sectarian war. The responsibility lies with governments and civil society, and the peaceful voices within them, to take a stand against the forces that seek to instil hatred, violence and division among us.